Every so often a meme goes around, pointing out that the protagonists of The Golden Girls were women in their fifties (played by women in their sixties) and comparing them to, for instance, Jennifer Lopez doing the Super Bowl halftime show at 50, or the characters in the SATC reboot. Nobody can believe Blanche and her roomies were actually supposed to be that young because middle age looks nothing like it did in the 1980s — and as a woman in her late 40s, I’m thrilled.
The Golden Girls looms large for millennials and Gen X’ers; it was so popular and such a fixture in syndication that it provided us with an iconic example of what aging was supposed to look like. The title said it all: They were in their golden years. And a big part of it was, plain and simple, the hair. Their hairstyles were a reflection of wider cultural expectations for older women. I remember sitting in a salon chair in high school, getting my hair done for prom. A woman sitting next to me asked the stylist to chop off her long hair — she was going to quit coloring it because she was in her 40s and she thought it was time to give up on having nice hair.
I couldn’t believe she was going to cut it off for that reason. Then my hairdresser looked at me as she finished my curls and said, “Hear that? You have just over twenty years left before it all goes to shit.” Everyone laughed, of course. It was a message that was everywhere: When my parents turned 40, there were black balloons and lots of jokes about being over the hill. We were even told it was rude to ask a woman how old she was.
Now, as a woman in her late forties, I am pleased to report that the attitude around getting older has changed quite a bit. I actually love being this age — I feel better than ever and I’m able to do things I never could have in my 20s. I’m physically stronger, I have less tolerance for BS, and I’m not afraid to speak up. I know I haven’t “expired.” I have a lot more I want to accomplish in life and my age will have no bearing on whether I get it done or not.
In many ways, I feel like I’m just getting started. And I know a big part of that is the fact that expectations for middle age have changed. My generation doesn’t agree that once you reach a certain age, you should let go of everything… from your dreams to your hair.
We also have more options when it comes to our appearance and the physical changes that come with age. There’s now lots of research about how to hang onto muscle and bone mass through diet and exercise as we age. Hell, we can walk into a medical spa during our lunch hour and get an amazing facial, Botox, or plump our lips. There are lasers that can erase years of sun damage and spots. The attitude towards taking aging with a grain of salt, and empowering women to make the choices they want for their own appearance. We can have our boobs and tummy lifted in a matter of hours and go home that day.
It’s wonderful, but I have to admit I have a love/hate relationship with it all. On the one hand, I look forward to my Botox and filler appointments and I love seeing the dark spots get zapped off my legs and chest.
On the other hand, I just watched Murder Mystery 2 and saw 54-year-old Jennifer Aniston grace the screen without any wrinkles. Her neck looks like it did when she was in her twenties — yes, I googled photos and compared them. Then I walked right over to my mirror and pulled my neck back and began wondering if I should do something about my neck because, after all, I’ve got the option. Should I be doing more?
It’s nice knowing that I can keep my hair, but at the same time, I kinda wish I was comparing myself to Rue McClanahan (the actress who played Blanche was 53 during the first season of The Golden Girls) instead of Jennifer Aniston.
My friends and I talk about this a lot; we want to feel and look like the best version of ourselves and we’re over the moon that there are more products and tools available to us. But at the same time, where does it end? It’s easy to tell someone not to compare themselves to someone else (especially not a celebrity with a ton of resources) but it seems like we all do it at least a little bit.
For me, my happy place is somewhere in the middle. I’m not even close to being done pursuing my dreams and passions. I will never stop pushing myself physically or trying new things. And if I want to get that neck lift one day, I will. I’ll just make sure it’s on my terms.
Katie Bingham-Smith is a full-time freelance writer living in Maine with her three teens and two ducks. When she’s not writing she’s probably spending too much money online and drinking Coke Zero.